Column: Ignore Marianne Williamson at your peril

Marianne Williamson leaves Democratic debate watchers transfixed and confused.

Culture columnist/critic

Thank the goddess Marianne Williamson is running for president. Because if Kamala Harris brought the fire to Thursday night’s Democratic debate, Williamson provided the zen, swooping in like a sage-wielding shaman to defuse the tensely earnest Tracy Flick-ness of it all.

The 66-year-old bestselling author of a dozen spirituality-based self-help guides, a longtime Oprah friend and Gwyneth Paltrow inspiration, promised to be the evening’s wild card, and — despite the very best efforts of the moderators, who took almost 30 minutes to ask Williamson a question — she did not disappoint.

Though born in Houston, Williamson has one of those vaguely Continental, dinner-theater accents and, after years on the lecture circuit, an air of easy confidence that often seemed at odds with the abrupt strangeness of what she was saying.

Which on Thursday night included her insistence that a detailed healthcare plan is less important than a good slogan, that her first presidential call would be to tell New Zealand’s prime minister, “Girlfriend, you are so on,” and that she will meet, and defeat, Donald Trump on the field of battle by harnessing the power of love.


All of which made it easy to snicker, and many did, with all sorts of jokes about essential oils, astral planes and recently ingested edibles. (Those publications that described her as the least-known of the candidates need to check their pop cultural snobbery; Williamson has much higher name recognition than most of the people on that stage.)

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The thing is, though, as jarring and tangential as her comments might have been, she was not wrong.

The healthcare “plans” offered by many of the 10 candidates are so complicated to explain, especially during the truncated time that debates offer, that the term “single payer” quickly became groan-worthy. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern would be a great person to call because she is a rock star; after the horrific Christchurch shootings earlier this year, she made a powerful statement that such actions “have absolutely no place in New Zealand and, in fact, have no place in the world.” Then she put her money where her mouth is by enacting stricter gun control and expressed bewilderment over why the U.S. has not done the same.

As for fighting Trump with love, well, many people have criticized the president for leveraging hate of all kinds, and how many “Love trumps hate” signs have you seen since the 2016 election?

Williamson also called for reparations for slavery, better education about racism, a Kennedy-esque “we choose to send a man to the moon” attitude toward the climate crisis, and an end to the “kidnapping” and “child abuse” perpetrated against families separated at the border.

All of which was pretty much in sync with what everyone else was saying. It just seemed a bit more, well, wacky when Williamson said it. Perhaps because she didn’t cradle every statement in a litany of statistics, use every opportunity to catalogue her previous experience (she may be Oprah’s spiritual advisor but she also founded Project Angel Food) or repeatedly trot out an example of how [insert topic being addressed here] was “personal” to her.

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Or maybe it was the accent, which is, as one colleague put it, very “Schitt’s Creek’s” Moira Rose, or the fact that she says things like “We don’t have a healthcare system, we have a sickness care system” and “I have had a career harnessing the inspiration and the motivation and the excitement of people. Masses of people.”

Or maybe it was simply the fact that she alone did not seem stressed. While virtually every other candidate vibrated with anxiety — Kirsten Gillibrand kept interrupting everyone, Bernie Sanders waved his hands in the air so often and so violently he almost clipped Joe Biden, and Eric “Pass the Torch” Swalwell tried to grab the spotlight by attacking older candidates for their age — Williamson just hung out on one end of the stage, calmly waiting for an opportunity to remind everyone that legislative details are not necessarily as arresting as rediscovering our moral center and collective energy.

A bit aromatherapy-transcendental for the room and perhaps not traditionally presidential, perhaps not extraordinarily likely to be effective in office — but not crazy. Certainly not to the millions of Americans who spend billions on self-help books every year, who adore Williamson and Oprah, who love Goop and Gwyneth’s Insta.

Or even to those of us who don’t. It’s pretty clear America is in the midst of an identity crisis with deep moral if not spiritual divisions. Inundated with information, opinion, revelation and all the whipsaw spin that goes with it, it’s tough to argue against anything that might help, including a good aura cleansing or chakra realignment.

New Age thinking is not benign, of course — Williamson has already come under fire for supporting anti-vaxxers (for which she has apologized) — and in a field that includes so many smart and qualified female candidates, her earth mother vibes feel both like a fascinating break from the tough-lady-politician model and also a bit outmoded. Women like Harris and Elizabeth Warren do not need to be told their greatest fear is not failure but success.

In many ways, Williamson is the left’s answer to Trump — an outlier candidate who celebrates her lack of political acumen with the language of popular culture and believes, at some level, that feelings are the same as facts. Like Trump, she is a crowd-pleaser who sees smoke and mirrors as tools of the trade rather than methods of deception.

Which means we should pay attention to what she is actually saying and who it connects with.

Snickering is fun, but as the 2016 election proved, we do it at our own peril.